Anatomy of a Flipside: Part Two, How Do You Make a Flipside?

Throughout May the Digital Fix will be taking a behind the scenes look at one of this month’s BFI Flipside releases, Andy Milligan’s 'Nightbirds'. In weekly instalments we’ll be tracing the disc’s course from conception to production, explaining how and why this film was chosen for release and the various problems (and solutions) the DVD team faced in bringing it to a home audience. Each step will be accounted for, from transferring the film elements and selecting the extras to putting together the booklet and the packaging. This week: How does a Flipside come into being…? (Photographs courtesy of Douglas Weir.)

For years Nightbirds was an unknown quantity. It was one of a string of features Andy Milligan made whilst living in London during the late sixties. He’d arrived from New York in 1968 and stayed in the capital for eighteen months. During that time he put his name to five films, of which Nightbirds was the only non-horror. The others constituted a werewolf flick (Curse of the Full Moon, aka The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!), a vampire movie (The Body Beneath) and loose adaptations of the tales of Sweeney Todd (Bloodthirsty Butchers) and Dr. Jekyll (The Man with Two Heads). His reason for crossing the Atlantic was Leslie Elliot, proprietor of the Compton Cinema Club, who had made his acquaintance whilst in New York looking for acquisitions. He’d purchased a bunch of Milligan titles from exploitation producer William Mishkin and subsequently screened them in his tiny theatre before sending some of them out to other unsuspecting cities via his Compton Film Distributors.

Elliot had some experience in filmmaking too. In 1965 he’d served as executive producer on The Liquidator, an adaptation of the John Gardner spy novel directed by Jack Cardiff and starring Rod Taylor and Trevor Howard. It was these services which Milligan sought. The filmmaker was effectively his own crew - cinematographer, editor, costume designer and sound department - and so all he needed to take on the plane was his trusted Auricon camera; Elliot would be able to do the rest. Nightbirds is the only London feature to bear his name, though their relationship had soured before any had the chance to play the Compton Cinema Club or elsewhere. Nevertheless Milligan lived within walking distance of the theatre throughout his stay in the capital. His Dean Street flat, situated in the heart of London’s Soho, was right around the corner.

Fast-forward to early 2012 and Milligan is on Dean Street once more. Just three doors down from his old residence is Prime Focus, the technical facilities company used by the BFI for their telecine work. In one of their suites Nightbirds is receiving what may very well be its first London screening, albeit to an audience in single figures. (Ironically, Prime Focus also happen to occupy 58 Old Compton Street, the former site of the Compton Cinema Club.) They’re watching Milligan’s original 35mm print which, following his death in 1991, had passed into the hands of his biographer Jimmy McDonough and, subsequently, into those of Bronson and Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn.

Nightbirds was never a ‘lost’ film as such. Rather it was one so little-seen it may as well have earned the title. Only McDonough was known to have seen it given the description in his Milligan biography, The Ghastly One, which also prompted speculation as to whether he owned a copy. (Meanwhile, everyone else had to make do with the film’s trailer, which had been included on a Something Weird DVD-R double-bill of Babette and Monique, My Love, two slices of lesbian-themed sexploitation from the mid-to-late sixties.) Any conjecture amongst fans was firmly put to bed when one of them - a certain Mr. Refn - purchased a whole batch of Milligan-related items from McDonough via eBay. Refn had been collecting prints of the filmmaker’s work for some time but this latest purchase was the mother lode: McDonough’s complete collection, including the four reels of 35mm which made up Nightbirds.

Refn’s fandom extends beyond Milligan and into all areas of obscure and forgotten cinema. Unsurprisingly he has also been fully aware of the Flipside strand for some time and took the opportunity, whilst in London following production on Drive, to extend his enthusiasm in person. Lunch was arranged with the BFI’s head of DVD, Sam Dunn, and conversation understandably turned to cult movies, cult filmmakers and, inevitably, Andy Milligan. When it was mentioned that Refn owned prints of two of the London features (vampire flick The Body Beneath having also been among the eBay acquisitions) a future Flipside was posited. After all, the main feature was a perfect fit. Here was a British film that had languished in obscurity for decades, had never been previously released in any format, and was “weird, wonderful, offbeat and rare” - so rare in fact next to nobody has ever seen it.

Deals were struck with the relevant parties and, once the 35mm prints were in the hands of the BFI, the process of bringing them to disc could begin. At the time Refn was busy in London promoting Drive and famously swearing on BBC Breakfast. But he still found an hour or so each day to pop into Prime Focus and dedicate his time to the project. His materials were in an excellent condition and the resultant scans now reside in the BFI National Archive. Of course these were only prints and not the original camera elements and as such the future Flipside Blu-ray would have to bear a disclaimer - much as Christopher Monger’s Voice Over had done - explaining why the presentation didn’t come with quite the same shine as other releases in the range. Not that the results were in anyway poor. Indeed, Refn’s print of The Body Beneath screened at the BFI Southbank in January of this year to a fine reception.

There was one problem, however. Both The Body Beneath and Nightbirds were incomplete. The former was missing an entire scene, a romantic coupling which should have appeared early on. The latter had more deeply rooted excisions as a result of Milligan’s own print being used to create a trailer. Key moments from key scenes were utilised, not to mention key lines of dialogue, so as to make the promo as enticing and salacious as possible. Without such footage (the trailer being just one second shy of five minutes) the film appears lopsided in places and is peppered with ugly, unintentional jump cuts. That ugliness did prove helpful in one respect, however: it made it immediately apparent to the BFI where the gaps were. As such, and solely for internal reference purposes, technical producer Douglas Weir was able to painstakingly reconstruct the final cut using the trailer on the Something Weird DVD-R. In the process he also discovered that the trailer unfolded entirely in chronological order - there had been no effort whatsoever to at least mix up the footage a little!

Needless to say, releasing a Blu-ray that intermittently switches from high definition to a considerable downgrade in quality - especially at such key moments - was never going to be a welcome solution for the BFI. (An earlier Flipside entry, Her Private Hell, had made use of standard definition inserts to ensure a complete presentation of the film, though this amounted to much less screen time and was used to replace missing frames as opposed to missing passages.) To make matters worse the trailer also had its own score and voice-over in place, plus there was a Something Weird watermark throughout. What this reconstructed version showed, however, was just how integral this footage was. Nightbirds has a very clearly defined three-act structure in place and the interaction between those acts - how they rhyme with each other and how they culminate in a similar fashion - is incredibly important. Losing those five minutes would seriously diminish any sense of this. As such Something Weird were pursued in the hope that the print of the trailer could be obtained and remarried to its source. Amazingly, the company went one better and tracked down the original camera elements for not only Nightbirds but also The Body Beneath - both completely intact.

Milligan shot both features on 16mm Kodak Ektachrome reversal stock. In layman’s terms this means there is no negative. The footage is shot, handed over to the developer and then returned as a positive ready to run through a projector. It isn’t the greatest of film stocks - as we’d expect from a low-budget filmmaker not known for his technical prowess - but it does have its advantages. The main one is that its colour variant doesn’t fade over time. Nightbirds was shot in black and white, but The Body Beneath did opt for colour and as such looks as good today as it did in 1970. I was shown both the original camera elements and the Refn print in quick succession and the difference is immediately apparent, not just in terms of stronger colours closer to Milligan’s intent but also far greater detail and clarity. Furthermore, the creation of prints (especially when blowing them up to 35mm) results in additional grain and a slight loss in definition, so that’s another advantage the original materials have. That potential disclaimer warning viewers of less than optimal presentation quality was no longer necessary. Both films could now be shown in a condition that simply cannot be bettered.

There was one major difference, however, between the Refn materials and those obtained from Something Weird. The original camera elements, having effectively come straight from the developer, lacked any music. Milligan recorded sound directly onto a magnetic track down the side of the film stock and so whilst all the dialogue is there, the same cannot be said for the score. As such the BFI have opted to utilise both sets of materials: the image for both features has been drawn from the elements provided by Something Weird, with the soundtracks coming from Refn’s. Interestingly, it is only because one of his prints happened to be missing some footage that Something Weird were approached at all. Had this not been the case we would likely never have known that the originals still existed…

Next Week: How Do You Package a Flipside? With all of the elements in place and transfers onto Blu-ray ready to go, it’s onto the next stage. Creating a Flipside doesn’t end there, now the extras need to be carefully selected, the booklet needs to be compiled and the sleeve art needs to come together.

For Digital Fix reviews of all of the Flipside releases to date simply click here.

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